Steve Swarthout discusses his fire safety experiences
Steve Swarthout, a deputy fire marshal with the Riverside County Fire Department, Office of the Fire Marshal, and chair of the International Code Council’s Fire Services Exam Development Committee, sat down to discuss his career and experiences in fire safety with ICC Assessment Center staff during a visit to the Code Council’s Eastern Regional Office in Birmingham, Ala.
Assessment Center: What are the duties of a fire marshal?
Steve Swarthout: A fire marshal educates the public by working with customers to help them understand building and fire codes. We conduct and oversee plan reviews, inspections and special events, to name a few. The fire marshal is the administrative lead and is responsible for implementing policy.
AC: What was the path to your career? What lit your fire about the fire industry?
Swarthout: I started off as a firefighter, and worked in this field for 10 years. This sparked my passion for fire services, and I wanted to expand my knowledge and services as it relates to public education and policy. I was also interested in learning how to conduct technical inspections.
The local fire marshal’s office had an opening available as “Inspector Investigator.” In this capacity, I conducted plan reviews and fire investigations. When I left my organization, I thought I knew everything — then I began working as a rural fire marshal. That was enlightening and certainly let me know that there was so much more to learn. I later got the opportunity to work in the private sector. In this position, I got to travel all over the country, working for large retail companies such as Costco and Home Depot.
After my kids went off to college, my wife and I moved to Washington state, also moving back to public service. I experienced a Washington winter, which would also be my last! We packed up and moved south to Riverside, Calif., where we have been for three years. Riverside is one of the largest counties in California, and the fire marshal’s office has a staff of about 60 people. The county has its own ordinance, but each city has to adopt it. I have been involved in coordinating efforts to align ordinances.
I have been connected with code adoption and implementation since the 1990s.
AC: Were you always interested in the fire industry? Did any particular event from your youth or childhood spark your passion for this work?
Swarthout: When I left the navy, my goal was to pursue a military career. And then I saw a Seattle advertisement on television one night for firefighting openings. I thought, ‘That looks like fun!’ So I stepped out of my military path and began to take tests. This turned out to be the best thing I have ever done. I love the fire service, and have learned every place I’ve been.
AC: How do you see the challenges one or two decades ago compare to the challenges today, in both your professional work and the industry overall?
Swarthout: I am a huge advocate for residential sprinkler systems. Every day, we sadly receive another notification for a home fatality due to lack of sprinklers. In my experience, there has never been a fatality in a sprinklered home. While this is still a very contentious issue, it is such a simple way to save lives.
The biggest change I have seen was the adoption of the International Codes. We used to have four or five codes throughout the country. A single model code was a huge and positive impact on our industry.
AC: Is there a significant event in your career that stood out that confirmed you were meant to work in fire safety?
Swarthout: I guess I always just felt I was in the right place. Being a fire investigator, I have seen many heartbreaking situations, including fatalities. Whenever I investigate one of these situations, it bolsters my resolve for code and fire safety practices. I drive my wife crazy because wherever we go, I am always looking for fire extinguisher tags and how to get out, which is usually not the way I came in.
AC: Why are you involved in an Exam Development Committee?
Swarthout: I am a huge proponent of certification, which demonstrates a code official’s ability to use a code book, and the desire to learn more. I want people to know how to use the book and apply the code. My little contribution to perpetuating the movement is to show how important these types of credentials are. Being certified provides a sense of seriousness and professionalism to the office.
AC: What are some ways we can begin connecting with a younger generation and introduce them to code enforcement?
Swarthout: Because of my belief in certifications, I encourage my staff to pursue certifications even though it is not required. If they ever want to promote, be a fire marshal, whatever they want to do in their professional career, they will need this knowledge and achievement. I provide study time at work, and I am trying to get more staff involved in code adoption. If you want to change the code, this is the process. We are lucky to have a colleague in the office whose sole job it is to process and submit code changes. We’re all code coaches.
AC: How do you see the demographics changing, if at all, and do you see more women entering the industry?
Swarthout: I am seeing an increase in women in the industry. In the Riverside office, we have two plans examiners and one inspector; one fire marshal in the district. Having five daughters, this has provided me with a certain perspective. We need to have more women in leadership roles. We are also seeing an increase in racial diversity.
AC: What do you see as most surprising about what you do?
Swarthout: I’m always surprised and amazed at the reaction of my staff to my management style. I was recently promoted to deputy. Every time I hear positive feedback, that surprises me.
AC: When your helmet is off, what do you most enjoy?
Swarthout: Dogs. We have two rescue mutts. We love Southern California. We spend time at the beach and at the pool. I love hiking, lots of outdoor stuff and spending time with my kids.